The Homma Chair

How a chair made of scrap wood survived 70 years, perhaps because of a “flaw.”


Yorozu’s parents (center) in Shizuoka with his three sisters, infant nephew, and brother-in-law, 1933. Yorozu had been in the U.S. for nearly 20 years by this time.  Photo courtesy of Mitch Homma.


Yorozu Homma, signed, undated,
Courtesy of Mitch Homma

Yorozu Homma was born in Japan in 1895. The Homma family were prosperous landowners in Shizuoka Prefecture who had inherited land from samurai and wished to make it more productive. They looked to the United States as a place of new technologies and Western learning. So at the age of 20, Yorozu arrived in Los Angeles, sent by his family to study greenhouse technologies.

Yorozu had been in Los Angeles for 27 years and was running a floral business when he and his wife, Shigee, were swept up in the mass eviction of Japanese Americans from the West Coast following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

They found themselves behind barbed wire in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, one of ten WRA concentration camps hastily constructed to house tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children uprooted from their homes.

In the flimsy barracks of Heart Mountain, no furniture was provided, save for a cot and mattress. So Yorozu, like many, constructed a chair from scrap lumber. 

The chair was simple but its back caught the eye — a slab of wood with a large, round knothole. The ragged opening would have been seen as a flaw by most people, but Yorozu honored the imperfection: he placed it directly in the middle of the chairback.

By highlighting the wood’s irregularity, Yorozu gave an otherwise plain chair a distinctive character, expressive of the sympathy in his native Japan for natural forms. This special detail may have been why the chair ultimately survived.

"chair - Homma $2.00"
- Estelle Ishigo, memo book

The Collector and the Chair

In the fall of 1945, Yorozu, in his fourth year of captivity, heard that a collector from New York City liked his scrap-lumber chair.

Allen H. Eaton, the collector and scholar, was in the midst of traveling to five of the camps in order to document the crafts that imprisoned people were making, mostly from salvaged materials. He was taking photographs, collecting examples and meeting artisans.1

During a visit to Heart Mountain in the fall of 1945, just as the camps were closing, he worked closely with Estelle Ishigo, an inmate and an artist there whom he had hired to help him. 

After he saw Yorozu’s chair, Eaton wrote to Estelle from New York.2

Correspondence between Allen H. Eaton and his agent at Heart Mountain, Estelle Ishigo, regarding the Homma chair,  Oct. 22, 1945. Estelle Ishigo Papers, UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, Los Angeles, CA.

Oct. 4:  “Did Mr. Homma leave one of his chairs — the one I wanted photographed and told him I would be happy to buy it.”

Oct. 22:   “I am glad you got Mr. Homma’s chair which we will either have photographed there or sent to me later or both.”

Nov. 3:  “…all the other things sound very interesting, especially Mr. Homma’s chair….”

Ishigo scribbled notes related to her work for Eaton in a small memo book. One entry concerned Yorozu: “chair – Homma $2.00.”  

The note is on a page that lists other items with prices. The entries include $1.50 for “photo – Homma,”  “dollpin – Murakami 0.25”  and “trip to Cody 0.48.”3

Could the note regarding the chair be taken to mean that Yorozu was paid $2.00 for it?  In the absence of additional supporting evidence, we can’t know for certain.

In any case, a deal was done and the chair from Block 17-15-A at Heart Mountain was shipped from Wyoming to New York City in early November, 1945.

After the war, Yorozu and Shigee moved back to Japan permanently. They adopted a child and lived in Shizuoka for the rest of their lives.   

The Homma chair disappeared from memory.


The Chair up for Auction

Seventy years later, in the spring of 2015, Yorozu’s chair resurfaced online and on the glossy pages of a New Jersey auction catalogue. Displayed on a full page, a color photograph of Yorozu’s creation was grandly described as a camp “Dining Chair.”

It was slated to be sold by Rago Arts and Auction. Yorozu’s name was not listed and the item’s provenance was listed as “Private collection, Connecticut.”4

Crafts created in the camps “are not pieces of art meant to decorate a private collection.”
- Rev. Bob Oshita, Buddhist Church of Sacramento

The “private collection,” located in affluent Greenwich, Connecticut, was that of a businessman who had inherited the chair and many of Eaton’s collections from his father, a contractor for one of Eaton’s daughters. When the daughter died, she bequeathed her father’s collections to the contractor.5

Approximately 450 items that Eaton collected from the camps were being publicized as “material that rarely comes on the market.”6 Auctioneer David Rago estimated the chair’s value at $1,000 but strong interest indicated the final price would go higher.

A social media protest against profiteering from camp artifacts, however, helped stop the sale.

Mitch Homma with the chair made by his great-uncle Yorozu at the Japanese American National Museum. Courtesy of Stephanie Stone.

Crafts created in the camps “are not pieces of art meant to decorate a private collection,” wrote Rev. Bob Oshita of the Buddhist Church of Sacramento, on a Facebook page that went viral.

“They are deep and quiet expressions of the hope and despair felt by a people enduring the trauma of racism, hatred and fear. What you are planning to sell should be part of our shared social conscience…and not viewed as simply art for display.”7

The threat of legal action and a celebrity’s intervention led to the cancellation of the auction.8 The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles eventually acquired all the items.

The Homma chair is now preserved at the museum, only a 30-minute drive from where Yorozu and Shigee once lived near Hollywood.  

According to Eaton’s notes, the chair was originally part of a set of six. It is not known what happened to the other five.

The Homma Chair
dimensions36" x 16" x 16"
materialscrap lumber
datec 1942 - 1945
creatorYorozu Homma
siteHeart Mountain, WY
provenanceAllen H. Eaton
collection Japanese American National Museum
Photo caption right: Photo of chair in New York City by John Schiff. Eaton's handwritten notes are on photo back. Photo courtesy JANM.
click to enlarge

Homma Family Photos

Kyushiro and Yorozu

Kyushiro Homma (left) followed his older brother, Yorozu, to Los Angeles in 1917. He graduated from Hollywood High School in 1924 and from USC dental school in 1929. He established a thriving dental practice in Westwood and counted Hollywood stars such as Shirley Temple among his patients.

Before the forced removal, Kyushiro drained his garden koi pond in Sawtelle and lit a bonfire in it, burning the personal papers and belongings that he couldn’t take with him. Two years later, he died at the Amache, Colorado, camp of a stroke and heart attack. Photo courtesy Mitch Homma. 

Box made by Yorozu

Yorozu began to carve a box from salvaged wood at Heart Mountain in January, 1944. Eight months later, it was used to collect “koden” incense money at Kyushiro’s funeral at the Amache, Colorado, concentration camp.  Family members believe that the tree on the lid recalls the cherry tree planted in Japan when Kyushiro emigrated to the U.S. The trunk of the tree appears to be severed or its growth stunted. Dimensions: 7.5″ x 5.5″ x 3.5″.  Photo courtesy Mitch Homma. 

Shigee at Heart Mountain

Shigee Homma, Yorozu’s wife, was a popular flower arranging teacher in Los Angeles before the war. She restarted her classes at the preliminary prison camp in Pomona, California, and continued teaching at Heart Mountain, enrolling 500 students in her first year.

In her last year of confinement, she taught 100 children aged eight to 12, who learned to make artificial flowers out of wire and paper. In the photo, Shigee stands before a display of the “Homma Floral Designing School Exhibition at Heart Mountain High School, July 16-18, 1944.” Photo courtesy Japanese American National Museum.

Prewar and postwar

Photo (left side) shows Yorozu and Shigee in 1932. They lived on Surry Street in Los Angeles in 1930 and on North Virgil Ave., in 1940. After the war, they returned to Japan. Right side shows them in Shizuoka in 1958. Yorozu continued his study of plants and seeds, attracting inquiries from a Cornell University professor. Seed specimens were donated to a research collection in the U.S. Photo courtesy Mitch Homma. Photo illustration by David Izu.

Masahiko and Kuni Wada

The extended Homma family was torn apart by the military removal orders.  Old and young were sent to detention camps in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming.

Masahiko (left) and Kuni Wada were Kyushiro Homma’s in-laws. They were Baptist missionaries to the U.S. and were arrested by the FBI at their church, the First Baptist Church of Pomona, in southern California, in March, 1942. Husband and wife were separated and sent to different Department of Justice internment camps for enemy aliens. Photo courtesy Mitch Homma. 

Yorozu's descendants

Shinji and Koki Homma, the grandson and great-grandson of Yorozu, were surprised to learn about their ancestor’s handmade chair. Photo taken in Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture. Photo courtesy Kumi Hasegawa.

Barrack chairs

13 Slides

Materials to make furniture were purloined from scrap piles, some left over from the camp’s construction. Nails were so precious that Noriko Sawada Bridges recalled wrapping them, many bent, in fruit crate paper as an engagement gift for a friend. (Personal Justice Denied, 1982, p. 161).
Dr. Frank Kami, 93, made this chair when he was 17 at Topaz, UT., out of a wooden crate his father obtained at the temporary Tanforan detention facility. "The bottom is the important part," he says, because it has the date of the family's transfer to Topaz, 9/22/42, and his father's name, James. Part of the family number, 13696, can be seen. Frank says he was heartbroken about being separated from his girlfriend, Miyo, from Berkeley, CA., and never went to a single dance. He made furniture instead. (see next)
Chairs made by Frank Kami at Topaz, UT, c 1942. Frank later made a replica of the table which the family had left behind when the camp closed. Collection Topaz Museum. Photo courtesy Kami family.
Photo: Tom Parker, WRA. Men often took carpentry jobs to get easier access to building materials, always in short supply. In this photo, the woodworkers are shown to be content and industrious while building furniture for camp facilities at Heart Mountain, WY. Sept. 22, 1942. Courtesy National Archives.
photo: Nancy Ukai, collection of Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation
Minidoka, ID, 11/1942 Courtesy of the Frank Kubo Collection, (Densho)
Nishimoto Chair, c 1943. Sanyo Nishimoto and his daughter, Irene, were sent to the Jerome, AR, camp and then to the Tule Lake, CA, Segregation Center. After being freed, they settled in Chicago. Irene Nishimoto Suyeoka became a noted weaver and wove the sling for the chair years later. Courtesy of the Nishimoto-Suyeoka Family Artifact Collection, Japanese American Service Committee, Chicago.
drawing: Estelle Ishigo 9/1945 Heart Mountain, WY,
Courtesy Bacon Sakatani Collection
photo: David Izu, collection of Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation
Chairs, Jerome, AR. Made by M. Makimoto
Photographer: unknown, Minidoka, ID, c 1944
Courtesy of the Mitsuoka Family Collection
(Densho description) "Barracks apartments were furnished only with a coal-burning stove and a cot.
Consequently, many camp inmates made furniture from scrap lumber."
Folding Chair, Poston, AZ, made by Toshimatsu Nakagawa
Collection of Mark Izu, photo: David Izu
Photo: Francis Stewart, Manzanar, CA, 2/10/1943
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration and the Online Archive of California
original WRA caption:
"Children are taught democratic games in the nursery school at the Relocation Center.
All desks, chairs, and other furnishings are made in the furniture factory by evacuee workers."
drawing: Miné Okubo, Tanforan Assembly Center, San Bruno, California, spring 1942
from "Citizen 13660," a book of drawings and text by Miné Okubo


1. Eaton was a scholar of immigrant crafts who was working for the Russell Sage Foundation in NY. In order to document and collect the crafts being made, he traveled to Heart Mountain, WY; Amache, CO; Minidoka, ID; Topaz, UT; and Tule Lake, CA. He published his findings in Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps (Harper & Brothers), in 1952.

2. Allen H. Eaton letters to Estelle Ishigo, (Oct. 4, 1945, Oct. 22, 1945, Nov. 3, 1945), Estelle Ishigo Papers (Collection 2010), Box 77, Folder 6, UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, Los Angeles, CA.

3. Memo book, Estelle Ishigo Papers (Collection 2010), Box 80, Folder 1, UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, Los Angeles, CA.

4. “Rago Great Estates Auction, Friday, April 17, 2015” online catalogue, Lot 1243. The catalogue added that the chair was “acquired from the collection of Allen Hendershott Eaton.”

5. The bequest was unsuccessfully challenged in probate court by other Eaton family members.

6. Eve M. Kahn, “Art of internment camps will head to auction,” The New York Times, Art and Design, March 5, 2015.

7. April 12, 2015, Facebook page “Japanese American History: Not for Sale.” The page was launched by activists in Northern California on April 8. A week later, the page had nearly 8,000 “likes” and national attention. A petition and Twitter hashtags bolstered the community protest. “Japanese-American internment artifacts auction cancelled after backlash,” April 16, 2015, The Guardian.

8. Alongside the social media protest, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation offered to pay Rago twice the appraised value for the collection, asked the firm to sell the items to a Japanese American organization to avoid breaking up the collection and finally filed an injunction to stop the sale. Actor George Takei, who was incarcerated as a child with his family at Rohwer, AR, and Tule Lake CA, offered to help negotiate an agreement and, under pressure, Rago agreed to cancel the public sale.


by Nancy Ukai

art direction: David Izu

Special thanks to:

Mitch Homma, Kumi Hasegawa, Bacon Sakatani, Rev. Bob Oshita, Frank Kami, Henry Kaku, Dennis Fujita, Ryan Yokota, Japanese American Service Committee, UCLA Library Special Collections and the Japanese American National Museum. 

Supported in part by a grant from the National Park Service,

Japanese American Confinement Sites program